The Hour of the Star
by Clarice Lispector
For a poor reject of Brazil's slums, Macabéa sure is a complex character. At one moment, she's compared to cold coffee, a hair in one's soup, a misfit, or a dog; and then at the next moment, she's compared to a saint, a star, the greatness of every human being, and the imminence of ringing bells. So, Roderigo S.M., which is it?
Off to a Bad Start
Things don't start off well with Macabéa. She's born in the backwoods of Alagoas, a Northeastern coastal state in Brazil; develops rickets from malnutrition, and then loses her parents to typhoid when she's only two.
Luckily, she has a surviving relative to take her in. Unluckily, that surviving relative is a sadistic aunt who beats her just for fun and then takes away her favorite dessert, guava preserve with cheese. (It's tastier than it sounds.) Macabéa has no idea what she's done wrong, which is unsurprising because she's never asked.
Anyway, life goes on, even if you sometimes wish it wouldn't. Eventually, the aunt died—but not before finding her a job as a typist in Rio de Janeiro.
Big City, Big Mess
Macabéa isn't exactly living it up Sex in the City-style. Instead, she's sharing a one-room apartment with four other girls and working for a guy who's constantly threatening to fire her because she's such a bad typist. Plus, she's so poor that she literally has to eat paper to try to quell her hunger pangs.
There is literally nothing attractive about this girl. She's has blotches on her face; she blows her nose on her petticoat; she's dirty, because she hardly ever bathes; and she smells. But she doesn't know she smells.
Want some more? Because we've got more for you. She sleeps in blood-stained underwear; she sleeps with her "mouth wide open because of her stuffed-up nostrils" (3.47); and she hasn't got a single thought in her head that doesn't relate to "merely exist[ing]" (3.47). She is "as appetizing as cold coffee" (3.57). (Hey, sometimes cold coffee really hits the spot.)
The narrator sums up her impoverished existence by reminding us of an unfortunate, but widely accepted, truth: "There are those who have. And there are those who have not." He then goes on to say in a very straightforward way: "It's very simple: the girl had not" (3.51).
So, what can we gather about Macabéa from these details?
Well, she's definitely not the most charming girl in the world. And she is largely invisible to society. She is definitely unattractive in appearance and manners. Perhaps this may be part of her personality, but it's likely more an effect of a life without anyone caring for her, a life of poverty, a life of ignorance. And the catch-22 is that being poor and unattractive makes people even less likely to care about her.
More Than Meets the Eye
But here's the thing: in spite of her hunger, her poverty, and her ignorance, Maca is … happy. See, she's got one thing that even rich boy like the narrator don't have: faith. As he says, "She was as light-headed as an idiot, only she was no idiot. She wasn't even aware that she was unhappy. The one thing she had was faith" (3.53).
Of course, it's not clear what she has faith in—and the narrator doesn't tell us. It's definitely not faith in God, and it doesn't seem to be faith in the idea that her life will get better. Instead, it's just some vague quality of faith that she carries around the way that someone might be, you know, a little angry all the time without really having anything to be angry about. Except better.
Faith or Logic
The thing about faith is that it doesn't make sense. It's basically illogical by definition—because if you can prove something by logic, then you don't need to have faith. It's not something you think about; you just have it.
And "not thinking" is something that Macabéa is good at. As the narrator tells us, "the girl did not know that she existed, just as a dog doesn't know that it's a dog" (3.58). She lives in "slo-o-ow motion" and exists in "obscurity" (3.82). In other words: she has no "self-awareness" (4.353).
Look, this is tricky. What does it even mean to not know you exist? What's going on here is the idea that questions like, "Who am I?," "What kind of life do I want to lead," and even, "Who do I want to be when I grow up" are rich-people problems. And we're talking rich in terms of the whole globe, so, basically, if you're having your basic needs of food, shelter, and companionship met, then you're rich by Macabéa's standards.
Remember, this is the girl who gets a stomachache after a sweet bun, because she's so unused to good food.
The funny thing about this lack of self-awareness is it seems to throw her into a constant state of panic about herself. Like, every morning when she wakes up, she has to re-remember who she is. And she doesn't do it by saying, like, "I'm Macabéa; I have a loving family and a bright future." Nope. She says to herself, "I am a typist and a virgin, and I like coca-cola."
Let's parse (analyze) that.
"Typist." Macabéa is totally defined by her job. And she's not even very good at it.
"Virgin." She secondarily defines herself by her relationship status. Which is non-existent.
"I like coca-cola." She's a consumer. She defines herself—like a lot of us—by what she likes to buy. You know, like "I'm a Mac person," or "I shop at Abercrombie."
The thing is, none of these qualities are essential. She wasn't born with any of them. (Well, okay, she was born a virgin. But really, what "virgin" means in this context is that no one loves her, and, presumably, her parents loved her at some point.) It's as though her inner self is an empty shell that she can only keep together by using outside, external definitions. Like bandaids on a gaping wound.
Nice analogy, right?
The other thing about these three qualities is they show the limits of Macabéa's perception of herself. Hopefully, most of us could come up with more than three characteristics to describe ourselves. But not Maca. You get the sense that even three is stretching the limits of her self-definition.
Macabéa Monroe, the Death Star
So, Macabéa does have one hope and dream. She wishes she could be like Marilyn Monroe, a "celebrated film star." Of course, everyone she confesses this to laughs at her and reminds her of how ugly she is. But as she is dying by a street gutter, the narrator, in a desperate desire to choose life for Macabéa, proclaims that she is still alive and that "the hour has not come for the film-star Macabea to die" (5.438).
And check out what happens at the end. Right before she dies, she feels like vomiting something luminous, "a star with a thousand pointed rays" (5.444). She wants to release something luminous, as if she possessed a star inside of her, as if she possessed an inner, inextinguishable light.
This seems to be a moment of redemption for Macabéa. In spite of her physical poverty, she appears to exude an eternal spiritual abundance, represented by this regurgitation of inner-light. Through death, she is transformed into someone or something pure, bright, brilliant, and perfect.
If you think about, that's kind of what happened to Marilyn Monroe. She was popular as a film star, sure, but it's really through death that she's become this icon of American pop culture and a symbol of tragic youth and beauty. (If she'd lived to a ripe old age, it seems unlikely that there'd be an entire tumblr devoted to things that she didn't actually say.)
You could even say Marilyn Monroe has become kind of a secular saint: someone who was too good for this world, who died to inspire us, and whose life lives on as a kind of mythology.
Let's see: not meant for the world; died to teach us a lesson; a mythologized life.
That's actually starting to sound a lot like Macabéa. Okay, so she doesn't seem cut out to be a saint. She doesn't even believe in God. But at the same time, our narrator says, the "mysterious God of others sometimes bestowed on her a state of grace. Bliss, bliss, bliss. Her soul almost took flight" (4.306). And he says explicitly that "she possessed, without knowing it, the emptiness that replenishes the souls of saints. Was she a saint? It would seem so" (3.98). In other words, she achieves the saint's state of grace exactly because she's so empty—an emptiness that, apparently, our narrator can fill her up with whatever meaning he wants.
And this brings us to the major problem with Macabéa.
Manic Pixie Dream Girl
Okay. So, Macabéa is neither manic, nor pixie (although she is small), nor particularly dreamy. But at least she's got the girl part down.
The point is, the phrase "manic pixie dream girl" refers to a common plot device where a guy who is depressed, lonely, and boring meets a totally rad chick who, through her naively childlike ways, changes his life. Usually they break up at the end. And sometimes they die.
So, this is a problem because it turns the girl into just a plot device for the guy. And we can't help feeling that Macabéa is really more interesting to the narrator because of the way she makes him feel than because he's actually, you know, sorry for her, or wants to bring her plight to our attention. Think about the way he spends so much time worrying about his own writing and his own state of mind. Can you really say that this is a story about Macabéa—or is it a story about how the narrator feels about her?
Sure, maybe it doesn't really matter. But it is worth pointing out that this girl has to die to teach the narrator a lesson.Timeline